UN demands access to Houthi-controlled port over 'military use' claim

By Al-Mashareq and AFP


A picture taken last March 20 shows Yemen's Red Sea port of al-Hodeidah, which is controlled by the Houthis. [AFP]

The United Nations (UN) mission in Yemen's al-Hodeidah port, which is held by the Houthis, on Tuesday (January 11) expressed "great concern" over claims it was being used for military purposes, and demanded access for an inspection.

The UN Mission to Support the al-Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA) said the port was a vital aid route for the impoverished country, where a seven-year war has pushed millions to the brink of famine.

The Arab coalition, which is battling the Iran-backed Houthis in support of Yemen's government, last week accused the Houthis of militarising Red Sea ports and threatened to attack them.

Arab coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki accused the Houthis of using al-Hodeidah, Saleef and Ras Issa ports for military purposes -- as workshops for assembling ballistic missiles and explosives-laden drone boats.


The head of the UN observer mission in Yemen, Michael Lollesgaard, meets people in the port city of al-Hodeidah on April 2, 2019, as he monitors a ceasefire deal for al-Hodeidah reached during 2018 UN-brokered talks in Sweden. [Khaled Ziad/AFP]

In a January 8 statement on Twitter, Yemeni Information Minister Moammar al-Eryani said evidence confirms "the ports have been used for military purposes, starting point for terrorist activities in Red Sea and Bab al-Mandeb".

On January 2, the Houthis seized an Emirati-flagged vessel off the Red Sea coast -- in the first ship hijacking carried out by the group since 2019.

The group has regularly threatened maritime navigation and international trade in the Red Sea off al-Hodeidah, staging attacks with explosives-laden drone boats and laying Iranian-made mines in the waters off the coast.

"UNMHA reminds the parties that al-Hodeidah ports are a crucial lifeline for millions of Yemeni people," the mission said in a statement.

Appeal for crew's release

The Saudi-led Arab coalition says the seized vessel, the Rwabee, was carrying medical supplies, but the Houthis insist it was a military ship.

India on Tuesday appealed for the release of seven Indian nationals who were on board as part of an 11-member crew, along with others from Ethiopia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines.

"The government of India is making all efforts to secure their early release," said external affairs spokesman Shri Arindam Bagchi.

"We urge the Houthis to ensure the safety and well-being of the crew members, and release them immediately," he said.

The hijacking on January 2 raised fears that the conflict could spill over into the Red Sea, a vital route for Gulf oil and cargo shipments.

It also could have severe consequences for Yemen, if it draws attacks on al-Hodeidah.

"UNMHA has requested as part of its mandate to undertake an inspection," the UN statement said, adding that protecting the ports was "in the interest of the Yemeni people".

Call for political dialogue

The UN mission is aimed at preserving the 2018 Stockholm Agreement, a UN-brokered peace deal brokered in Sweden between the Houthis and the Yemeni government that calls for a ceasefire in al-Hodeidah, among other measures.

"There are no sustainable solutions to be gained from military escalation," UN special envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg said in a statement.

"The parties can and should engage in a sustained political dialogue aimed at de-escalating the violence and finding a way towards a negotiated comprehensive solution," he added.

Environmentalists have warned previously that any conflict in the Red Sea raises risks for the Safer -- an abandoned tanker carrying 1.1 million barrels of crude that has been lying off Houthi positions on the Yemen coast since 2015.

Experts say it could break apart or explode at any moment, which the UN says would cause a catastrophic oil spill.

Yemeni officials have accused the Houthis of using the tanker as a political bargaining chip, saying they are seeking payment for the oil on board to fund their war operations.

Yemen's war began in 2014 when the Houthis staged a coup in Sanaa.

The UN estimated the war killed 377,000 people by the end of 2021, both directly and indirectly through hunger and disease.

Yemeni forces and the Houthis have also been locked for months in a fierce battle in northern Yemen, with heavy fighting in Marib and Shabwa provinces.

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